The Ladies of Llangollen

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In the 18th century, aristocratic Irish women were expected to either marry (to the tune of immense dowries in order to secure the family’s fortunes), or, should that prove impossible, retreat to a convent. Eleanor Charlotte “this is a woman that no man would conquer” Butler and Sarah Ponsonby flipped everyone the bird and chose a third option: run away to Wales and become hyper-intellectual lesbian tourist attractions.

Butler’s castle, which belonged to her dynastic Irish family, was only two short miles from where Ponsonby lived. The two met when Butler was in her late 20s and became close “friends,” exchanging letters filled with flirtatious pet names. While this wasn’t unusual for the time period, eloping with another woman and stowing away in a barn dressed in men’s clothing after missing a planned boat was, and their respective families were dreadfully cross when they tracked down the errant women. Undaunted, the two skipped town again, this time settling down in a remote – and very lovely – part of Wales, where they holed up in a mansion. There they stayed for fifty years, composing poetry, gardening, and playing host to such illustrious guests as Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the Duke of Wellington, who all made pilgrimages to see visit the quirky couple.

As alluded to above, close platonic relationships between women were commonplace in Western cultures before the mid-19th century. The Ladies are listed here as lesbians because of the single-minded intensity of their lifelong relationship, including their unusual refusal to marry, and accounts from local gossips that attest to their obsession with each other; however, other interpretations are possible.

For more complete accounts of the Ladies’ exploits, see here and here.

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